House Republicans nearly sent their version of the Racial Justice Act revision to the floor late last week, but pulled it down for more work. When I spoke to Rep. Paul "Skip" Stam, R-Wake, Friday morning, he said the House Judiciary B Committee would approve a revision of the bill (called a "proposed committee substitute") on Monday afternoon. That bill would then go to the floor later in the week, probably Tuesday.
For those who haven't followed this, the Racial Justice Act is a 2009 law that allows defendants to challenge their death sentences based on statistical evidence of discrimination. If a defendant is successful, their sentence is commuted to life in prison.
Prosecutors argue it is an unnecessary part of what amounts to de facto moratorium on the death penalty. Backers say that the state needs to make sure it doesn't execute people merely because of their race.
You can click here to read that revision. A summary from legislative staff describing the new draft outlines the following differences:
- Eliminates the requirement that the Governor and Council of State must approve the protocols for carrying out a death sentence. (added in PCS)
- Removes the authority of a judge to declare a case as non-capital due to failure to comply with discovery rules; retains all other discipline or sanctions; and requires the court to continue the case so that a defendant is not prejudiced. (added in PCS)
- Removes the authority of a judge to declare a case as non-capital due to failure to comply with time limits for holding a Rule 24 hearing (pretrial determination if case has sufficient legal basis to be brought as a capital case); retains all other discipline or sanctions; and requires the court to continue the case so that a defendant is not prejudiced. (added in PCS)
- Provides that “at the time of the offense” in Racial Justice Act (RJA) is from 10 years (bill currently reads “24 months”) prior to offense to 2 years after sentence; defendant must waive any claims of parole eligibility; limits evidence to county and prosecutorial district; allows statistics based on (1) race of the defendant (currently in bill), and (2) peremptory challenges of jurors (not in bill, added in the PCS); statistical evidence alone insufficient to prove race a significant factor; moves hearing procedures from G.S. 15A-2012 (repealed, currently in bill) to G.S. 15A-2011; and applies to all cases where a judge has not made findings of fact and conclusions of law after an evidentiary hearing (unless the case is overturned on appeal).
Earlier drafts of the bill only allowed defendants to look at statistical evidence going back two years, so the 10-year window in this bill is more friendly to supporters of the original act.
But the different between this PCS and the current law seems to be this phrase in the bill: "Statistical evidence alone is insufficient to establish that race was a significant factor under this Article." Critics of the current bill have said that part of it undercuts the purpose of the existing law.
One other note: This version of the bill deals with death penalty provisions outside the scope of the Racial Justice Act. The provision about the Council of State was the basis for an inmate lawsuit that the state Supreme Court eventually rejected. The measure also limits when judges may declare that a case is "non-capital."
Update: The staff at the N.C. Center for Death Penalty Litigation has been a critic of this bill since its inception.
Gerda Stein, a spokeswoman for the center, says some of Stam's changes improve the bill in her group's eyes. For example, it adds back the ability of defendants to challenge racial bias in jury selection. However, it doesn't add back the ability to show bias caused by the race of the victim.
And, she said, the line saying statistical evidence is not enough to prove racial bias undermines the intent of the original law.
"It's still a repeal bill," Stein said.